The pain of switching to a new OS

Never underestimate the power of inertia. Windows users may grumble about security updates, password prompts, and balky hardware, but those annoyances are nothing compared to the mental effort required to switch to a completely new OS family. This longtime Windows user's experience with Ubuntu Linux tells the story.

Last week I decided to install a new operating system on one computer in my lab. Not a big deal, really. I install, uninstall, and reinstall various Windows versions all the time. But this particular installation was just a little different. See how much of this sounds familiar:

  • I made sure I had a CD containing the latest released version, placed that CD in the drive, and restarted. The system detected the CD, launched the boot files, and allowed me to create a new partition to install the OS files.
  • I answered a few questions and then let the installation proceed automatically. After everything completed (well under an hour), I created a new user account and password and logged on.
  • The very first thing I saw was a pop-up balloon warning me that there were updates available. When I clicked that icon, the screen dimmed and a password dialog box appeared. I couldn’t continue or perform any other task until I entered the administrator password.
  • Even though I had installed the very latest version, I saw that there were 98 separate updates available, designed to “correct errors, eliminate security vulnerabilities and provide new features.” It took approximately a half-hour to download and install everything over my high-speed connection.
  • After the updates completed, I was warned that I had to restart the computer before all of the updates would be effective. So I did.
  • When I reached the desktop, I noticed that the system clock was off. I tried to adjust it and was greeted once again with the dimmed-out login screen where I was prompted to enter the administrator password.
  • I noticed that the display resolution was set to 1024x768, but when I tried to change it to my monitor’s actual resolution of 1280x1024, I discovered that the settings dialog box didn’t offer that option and there was no obvious way to tweak it.

Ho-hum. Sounds like a typical Windows installation, with all the usual complaints: too many security updates, forced restarts, hardware that can’t be configured easily… And it must have been Windows Vista, because of those annoying User Account Control prompts.


Wrong. I was installing Ubuntu Linux. I had never tried this distro before, and I had heard from commenters recently that it was extremely user-friendly. So I decided to take it out for a spin in a VMWare virtual machine. The out-of-the-box experience wasn’t all that different from current betas of Windows Vista, and I was able to surf the web and set up the included Evolution e-mail client without too much difficulty.

But the experience became significantly less enjoyable when I tried to accomplish what should have been simple tasks to a moderately experienced Windows user. First, I needed to install the VMWare Tools utility. This is a set of add-ins that provide improved display and network drivers as well as the ability to move the mouse pointer effortlessly in and out of the virtual machine. When Windows is running in a VM, you can choose a menu option from the main VMWare menu, open the CD drive, and then double-click an icon to install the tools package. The Linux version starts the same way, by opening a CD window, but then it breaks down. The VMWare Tools package for Linux is contained in a tar.gz package, which I recognized as a compressed format. I was able to decompress the tarball and drop it into my home directory, but at that point I was stuck. Nothing looked particularly executable, and double-clicking icons with files names that included the word “install” did nothing.

It took about 20 minutes of Googling to learn that I had to use the Synaptic Package Manager (another UAC-style prompt required) to install the GNU C Compiler (GCC 4.0.3–1), the Make utility, and the Linux kernel headers for my installed version. (Of course, I needed to issue the uname -r command at a Terminal window to find out the correct version number.) After those components were all properly installed, I then had to open a terminal window and use the sudo command to run a Perl script that actually installs the VMWare Tools package.

After restarting, I had to go back into Terminal and run a series of cryptic commands (/etc/init.d/networking stop and modprobe vmxnet, to name just two) before the system would recognize the new improved network driver. And I had to reconfigure the X.Org X server (another cryptic command, sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg, issued from a Terminal window) before I could take advantage of my monitor’s full resolution.

[Update 10-July 2:40PM PDT: Some commenters are convinced that the graphics resolution problem I'm encountering is specific to the VMWare virtual machine. Nope. I just installed the same Ubuntu distro on a physical machine with an NVidia adapter with 256MB of onboard RAM. Despite the fact that my LCD monitor has a native resolution of 1280x1024, Ubuntu will only allow me to go to 1024x768. I repeated the same Terminal commands to reconfigure the X server on the physical machine and - kaboom! - when I restarted I was greeted with one of the ugliest text screens ever, informing me that the X server couldn't start due to a configuration error. I was forced to boot to a command prompt, where I reran the X server setup, this time choosing the Simple option instead of the Advanced option to specify monitor characteristics. When I restarted, my screen was at its full native resolution.]

The good news is that most of this information was readily available on community sites, although it took plenty of false starts and a few dead ends to get to the solutions that worked.

I’m actually fairly impressed at how far I was able to get with this Linux distro before I was forced to descend into command-line geek mode. And I have enough of a background in basic OS concepts and command-line interfaces that I was able to figure out what needed to be done at most steps. But a typical Windows user, even an experienced one,  would have been thoroughly lost at most of these junctures. And I haven't even mentioned the hour or so I spent searching for a decent feed reader and then figuring out how to install it. The task got a bit easier when I discovered how to enable the Community maintained (Universe) repository in the built-in package manager, but that option certainly wasn't obvious, and I only stumbled across it while searching for a completely different answer. A Windows user who is accustomed to downloading an exe file and double-clicking it will be stumped by the process.

In recent weeks, I've heard from several commenters who insist that Linux on the desktop is ready for the mainstream, or it's just around the corner, and that they've had no trouble setting up Linux-based systems for their grandmother or a similarly technophobic relative. My experience says usability is still a huge sticking point. A Windows user who is determined to make the switch will have to throw away knowledge and habits learned over years and years and essentially start over. Learning all those basic concepts from scratch is a frustrating experience, and it means lots of reading and research just to get to the point where one is even a beginner. Terminal sessions? X servers? Samba? Symbolic links? This really is a strange new world for someone who's only ever known Windows.

For a hobbyist or someone who's passionate about technology, the effort of learning all those new concepts might be worth it. But for someone whose goal is to get work done or to have the computer be just a tool, the pain and the effort of switching can't be underestimated.

I'm going to keep this Linux machine around and continue working with it. I'm also going to try a fully licensed copy of the Linspire distro next, to see if its subscription-based model makes a difference in the user experience.